U.S. Election 2020: COVID-19 pandemic alters the mechanics of a contentious presidential campaign

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      The phrase “an abundance of caution” has officially entered the lexicon of the U.S. presidential campaign.

      It was offered up on Tuesday night, when both former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders cancelled pre-vote rallies in Ohio, and it was used yesterday by president Donald Trump’s campaign when he cancelled upcoming events in Colorado and Nevada.

      Similarly, Democratic National Committee communications director Xochitl Hinojosa invoked the phrase when announcing a coronavirus-related change of venue (and format) for this Sunday’s Democratic debate, originally planned for Phoenix, AZ.

      “Out of an abundance of caution,” she said in a prepared statement, “and in order to reduce cross-country travel, all parties have decided that the best path forward is to hold Sunday’s debate at CNN’s studio in Washington, D.C., with no live audience.” 

      Welcome to a presidential campaign in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the only certainty appears to be change itself.

      Biden also went on to cancel an event in Tampa, FL, and revealed plans for virtual rallies in Miami, FL, and Chicago, IL. In an effort to limit the spread of the virus, his campaign issued a statement announcing that it would close its Philadelphia, PA headquarters and field offices to the public for two weeks, and encourage staffers to work from home. It also noted that all in-person fundraisers would now become virtual.

      Trump, meanwhile, cancelled a pre-St. Patrick’s Day event at the White House with the prime minister of Ireland yesterday, and again, “in an abundance of caution”, a March 19th rally in Milwaukee, WI.

      Both democratic candidates skewered Trump for his slow reaction to the crisis.

      “Unfortunately, this virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration,” Biden said in a statement yesterday. “Public fears are being compounded by a pervasive lack of trust in this president, fueled by the adversarial relationship with the truth that he continues to have.”

      “The crisis we face from the coronavirus is on a scale of a major war,” Sanders countered, in Burlington, VT yesterday. “The number of casualties may actually be even higher than what the armed forces experienced in World War II…unfortunately, in this time of international crisis, it is clear to me, at least, that we have an administration that is largely incompetent, and whose incompetence and recklessness have threatened the lives of many, many people in our country.”

      For his part, in addition to instituting a European travel ban, Trump this afternoon declared a national emergency through the Stafford act—which allows the U.S. government to respond to national health emergencies and natural disasters—allowing access up to US$ 50 billion in federal aid.

      Asked about his administration’s slow response to the pandemic, the president pushed back, and laid the blame on previous administrations.

      “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said. “We were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”

      No matter how quickly or effectively the new federal funds are disbursed, it appears obvious that the course of 2020 politics has already been irrevocably changed.

      With eight months remaining in the presidential campaign, 31 state and territorial governments are now re-assessing the safety and viability of their upcoming primaries and caucuses. So far, only one—Louisiana—has made a schedule change, postponing its April 4th primary until July 25th, but there will likely be more following the Pelican State's lead.

      As for next week, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio have all said that their primaries will go ahead as planned on March 17th. Combined, they will award a total of 577 delegates.

      How the coronavirus will affect turnout, and results, remains to be seen.